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Last Call for Know-It-Alls: The Departure of a Classic Specimen of Old-San Francisco Bon Vivantery 

Wednesday, Jan 22 2014

An ever-present, chilled glass of Ancient Age bourbon awaits Harold "H." Brown in his 96-square-foot room in the Tenderloin.

A pair of "guard chihuahuas" loudly monitor the mounds of detritus spilling out of a neighboring room and piling up in the hallway, and the ever-present cacophony of McAllister Street wafts in through his fourth-story window.

For the past 10 years, this has been the soundtrack to Brown's life. He knocks back the bourbon, inhales a lungful of (doctor's-orders) pot, and, as ever, holds court.

"When I was 18, I was arrested in downtown Casablanca in a bullfighting ring at a Ray Charles concert for being an American spy."

Well, that's a hell of a way to start a story. Not many people can. And, within a few months, the only person in this city able to do so figures to be gone.

Brown has been banished from just about every comments section of every news site in town. Abrasive behavior in the offline realm, commonly known as reality, has resulted in his ejection from many a drinking establishment, even those run by close, personal friends. Gratuitous bellicosity has led to his expulsion from candidate's forums, too — which is unusual, since he was the candidate. But no one ever accused Brown of being usual. He's run for supervisor in Districts 2, 3, 5, and 6 despite not really living in all of those places — the rare benefit of homelessness. He ran for mayor in 2007, along with a pack of no-hope earnest city residents, lunatics, and earnest city lunatics.

He didn't win.

And now, for a change, he's leaving without being asked. Or told. Brown, 69, has announced he's departing San Francisco, the city he first visited in 1966 and has called home since 1980. He's not a victim of gentrification. He's not an allegory for the mass exodus of non-elites from the city of $4 toast.

Brown is so sui generis — an elfin, formerly homeless teacher, firefighter, jazz-club impresario, prodigious writer, and six-time divorcee with a voracious appetite for city meetings and marijuana, simultaneously — that he's not a natural springboard into those bigger discussions about larger issues. And yet, his strange, charmed existence here says a lot about this city of ours.

Every town has its share of profane, hard-drinking know-it-alls. In San Francisco, however, Brown rubs shoulders with the city's political elite. He's on friendly terms or better with powerful elected and appointed officials. Men — and they are invariably men — knock off moving and shaking at City Hall, ascend the four flights of stairs at Brown's antiseptic residential hotel, and knock off fifths of bourbon in the densely packed cubicle where Brown sleeps on an old yoga mat. City functionaries responsible for moving around billions of dollars respond to his calls and e-mail blasts, even the unhinged missives coming at odd hours. He house-sits for them and feeds their pets. "H. is, quintessentially, a San Francisco guy," says former board President Matt Gonzalez, a longtime Brown buddy. "We're a small enough city to accommodate that kind of access. And he's wicked smart."

San Francisco is, above all, a tolerant place. Brown has been kicked out of municipal buildings, homes, recreation centers, bars, moving vehicles, and anywhere somebody can be forced to leave by somebody else. But he always came back. And he was, amazingly enough, usually welcome.

And that's why he's going.

H. Brown ambles through the Tenderloin, occasionally ducking into a thrift shop to pick up trinkets and flowers and jewelry he can bestow upon all he sees like a marijuana-scented Santa. He stops in at the Salvation Army for the $1.25 senior lunch at 11 a.m. like clockwork. The meal on a recent Monday is an indeterminate but tasty fried hunk of meat with beets and steamed vegetables; he spends most of his time regaling his fellow diners and watching Meet Me in St. Louis on the big screen, and ends up taking two-thirds of the meal home in several Tupperware containers. He then perambulates to the Tenderloin police station to drop off a zip key of downloaded British cop shows for the station captain. He nods at the cops. He nods at the dealers. He nods at the bleary-eyed men nodding off. Everyone nods back. "The key," Brown says, "is knowing when you've got it made."

Brown knows. "I can go to sleep and wake up any fucking time I want. I got plenty of dope for free because I'm a senior. I got all the food I can possibly fucking have. I got it made. I know I got it made."

In a city where everyone is working harder and spending more, Brown isn't working at all and his big splurge was a dollar on McDonald's Big Mac and Fries salt-and-pepper shakers he gifted to your humble narrator. He's happy. He's content. Too happy. Too content.

"Khalil Gibran said, 'The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.' But if you have only whipped cream, you don't appreciate it. You need to have some fucking pepper with the sugar and shit."

Brown exhales a pungent cloud of smoke and shakes his head. "I'm not enjoying it here anymore. It's all whipped cream."

Anecdotes regarding F. Scott Fitzgerald's propensity to leap into fountains, arrive at parties in pajamas, or boil guests' watches in tomato soup make for good copy. For those subjected to such erratic behavior in person, however, the experience was likely not entertaining — and perhaps depressing or even terrifying. Stories of H. Brown's inspired boorishness ring similarly; it's one thing to chuckle over tales of an acid wit clearing out a bar with his belligerent talk. It's another to be cleared out.

If comedy is indeed tragedy plus time, however, Brown will leave 'em laughing for posterity. Friend after friend recalled anecdotes of offensive, bourbon-fueled behavior invariably culminating with Brown being instructed to "Get the fuck out, H.!" But, always, these were happy memories, if not happy occasions.

The folks recalling these tragi-comedies were former supervisors, consultants, academics, political Svengalis, and other city luminaries. Brown's encyclopedic knowledge of local government and deep institutional memory got him through the door. But what kept him from being tossed out of it — for good, at least — was his oversize personality. "Am I boring?" he asks, needlessly.

"A lot of folks in public life value people with money or access or that sort of thing," says former Supervisor Chris Daly, a Brown "drinking partner and friend and sworn enemy." Other city politicos, however, "value people who are interesting."

Brown is interesting. And he shows up at events, whether you like it or not. And he offers denizens of City Hall constant feedback — whether you like it or not — forming a symbiotic relationship with the egocentric types who hold public office and are desperate for attention.

But, above all, the man is fascinating and unique in a town where that, itself, is growing unique.

Brown chalks up his arrest at a Ray Charles concert held at a Casablanca bullring to "Moroccans not appreciating public drunkenness." When asked for ID, all he had were his Navy papers. That wasn't good enough, and he was detained. Before long, a Swiss diplomat showed up and drove him at high speed back to Sidi Yahia in a huge Mercedes. The next day, the base's guards were forced to don Hawaiian shirts — Brown had inadvertently divulged the existence of a "secret base," he says. Gaudy apparel was now preferable to military garb.

So, that was one adventure. And now it's time for another. "I'm turning 70 and I only have so many years left," he says. "I think I'll go into abject poverty and misery and shit. But it'll be different."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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